Nfld. & Labrador

Survivor calls residential schools suit traumatic, unnecessary

Former residential school students, together with their lawyers, say being forced to relive childhood trauma in a courtroom is unnecessary and harmful.

Former residential school student says she's plagued with PTSD following courtroom testimony

Cindy Dwyer said she suffered physical, psychological and sexual abuse in North West River. Reliving that abuse in court, she says, has been very difficult. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Former residential school students, together with their lawyers, say being forced to relive childhood trauma in a courtroom is unnecessary and harmful.

"It was not a life I would wish upon anyone else," said Cindy Dwyer, an Inuit woman part of a class action lawsuit. 

Dwyer was a student in North West River from age five to 15. She said she was physically, psychologically and sexually abused while there. 

At age seven, Dwyer said she was raped. As well, house mother would slap her in the face, lock her in a closet and tell her to sleep in a snowbank. 

"I have to admit that testifying in court was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do," she said. 

"[To] open up in court to everything that happened to me in there, and to have the [International Grenfell Association] lawyer downplay everything that happened and say it was because my mother was unfit."

Reliving the trauma

Born in Nain, Dwyer was sent to a residential school in southern Labrador after her mother left her family.

"I was sexually assaulted in there twice at 13 and you couldn't turn to a house parent in there because they didn't give a damn about you, they didn't care," she said. 
Cooper and Dwyer are hopeful a new Liberal government will eventually settle the class suit out of court. (CBC)

"I'm reliving this over and over in my head ... and I could only imagine if that was my daughter. And me blaming me all these years, thinking it was my fault."

In the days since her testimony, Dwyer said she's been plagued by symptoms of post-traumatic stress. 

She said it's taken a toll on her school work. She's unable to sleep, has nervous tendencies and difficulty concentrating. At times, she said she feels like she's losing her mind. 

"There's been times I've felt like taking a bottle of pills and saying, 'To hell with it. I can't take it anymore, I can't handle it anymore. Maybe I might as well end it'," she said. "But I have two children and I just can't do it."

'It's not just me'

Dwyer doesn't think it's necessary or fair that residential school students are expected to testify about their abuse. The class action suit is made up of more than 1,000 former residential school students. 

"I know it's not just me. There are other people out there that are going through the same thing and I think the government needs to know what it's doing to people," she said. 

"How many more people had to go to court and relive this? There's no need of it. There's absolutely no need of it."

'Completely avoidable'

The lawyer who started the class action suit, Steve Cooper, told CBC News that Dwyer's grief is entirely avoidable.

"PTSD and other unfortunate responses — but understandable responses — are pretty common, and they aren't just limited to the people that testified last month," said Cooper.

Lawyer Steve Cooper represents more than 1,000 former residential school survivors. He says it's unfair people in N.L. have to testify while other Canadian survivors have not. (CBC)

Survivors from this province, he said, are among the only survivors in Canada asked to "relive in a public forum the horrors of the residential school system ... it's terrible."

"What has happened in Newfoundland and Labrador is a one off ... it's completely avoidable," he said.

Cooper expects the Trudeau government will live up to promises made during the election, that cases will be settled out of court. 

His biggest fear, however, is that "faith [will] dissipate rather quickly if something doesn't happen soon."

"The longer we wait, the least sincere any negotiation attempts will seem."

With files from Mark Quinn